Resurrecting the Extinct Jewish Community of Port Said, Egypt

At its peak during the 1920s, the Jewish community in this Suez Canal city numbered almost 1,000 people. Efforts are being made to preserve their legacy before it’s too late

A postcard from Port Said showing the commercial road.
Cairo Postcard Trust

The bitter end of the small, short-lived, Jewish community of Port Said, Egypt, came in 1956 - only about 100 years after its establishment. Shortly after the Sinai Campaign, in a covert operation known as Operation Tushia (Operation Ingenuity) on November 17 that year, 65 Jews from the city boarded two Israel Navy ships and were taken directly to Haifa, Israel. A few days later, the rest of the city’s Jews boarded two French ships that brought them to Marseilles. No one was left behind.

the disappearance of the Jewish community of Port Said is one example of the hundreds of Jewish communities in the Middle East that were forever forgotten. The names of its residents might remain unknown, unless an effective research - beyond the scope of any one scholar - is soon launched.

A portrait of a Jewish woman from Port Said, Egypt (1870-1890)
Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

The first Jews arrived in Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal, during the building of the canal between 1859 and 1869. Most of them were money changers, money lenders and tailors, as well merchants who sold various goods to tourists coming to see the canal. By 1873 there was a school for Jewish boys with 15 students.

In 1879 the Jewish community reached about 70 people. The community grew gradually and in the middle of the 1880s Jews from Aden, Yemen – Adenite Jews – could be found alongside others from Romania, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Near the end of the 19th century Jews arrived from Ottoman Palestine and the core of the Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey.

A 1885 map of Egypt and the Basin of the Nile.
W. & A. K. Johnston

At its peak during the 1920s, the Jewish community numbered almost 1,000 people. It had two synagogues – one Sephardi and one Adenite – a rabbi, ritual slaughterer and mohel, a number of Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, as well as Zionist, Revisionist (right-wing) Zionist and women’s organizations.

The city’s flagship was the large Simon Arzt department store, which was owned by Jews and is remembered in Israel for its decorated tin cigarette boxes that competed with the cigarette industry of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. Many members of the Port Said Jewish community were employed by the department store, and others worked in shipping, commerce and the free professions.

In the mid-’30s, an estimated 75 percent of the members of the Jewish community had an Adenite background. At some point during this decade, Jews began leaving the city, a trend that picked up after the founding of Israel in 1948, leaving only about 300 Jews in the city in 1956.

Anyone trying to catalog the surnames of the Jewish community beyond the general classification of “Adenites, Sephardim who speak Ladino and Ashkenazim” will find this a very difficult task. The matter of the last names is serious; in many cases they hold the key to allowing an understanding of where these people came from, another path in the history of Jewish wanderings.

A postcard from Port Said, showing the Large ship docked next to the Office of the Suez Canal Company.
Cairo Postcard Trust

Putting together the puzzle

As opposed to the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria, a number of whose sons and daughters wrote fascinating memoirs about their communities, only one book was written about Port Said by a Jew born there, the 2000 English-language work “Port Said Revisited” by Sylvia Modelski. Her paternal grandfather was from Aden and her maternal grandmother (a relative of former Haifa Mayor Shabtai Levy) was from Istanbul.

The book is no different than most of its genre, written in a personal and nostalgic tone, but it rarely mentions names outside a small circle of close friends. As a result, it’s up to the rest of us to put together the puzzle of Jewish last names of Port Said. The project requires us to burrow into the internet and libraries, as well as meet with former residents who still live among us. All this effort has its reward because at the end of the journey the data and general historical descriptions turn into faces of real people.

The Port Said promenade at the Suez Canal.
Nir Kafri

I used Yad Vashem’s online Hall of Names, which contains the names of Holocaust victims and their places of birth. After typing in Port Said, I received the following names and years of birth: Lucien Lazare Blaustein, 1889; Carlo Cohen Venezian, 1886, who is listed among the Holocaust victims in Italy; Josef Botshaim, 1888, a tailor whose name I later found in the Berlin directory; and Sara Laufer, 1883, who was murdered in Sobibor.

The Hebrew newspapers in Israel and Europe of the 1890s and the early 20th century occasionally reported on the happenings in Port Said, including ads. For example, an announcement appeared in 1898 in the newspaper HaZvi about the engagement of Hannah Leah Benderli from Port Said to Chaim Kahana from Beirut.

Shmuel Benderli (from the same family based in Safed) wrote a notice in the newspaper Hashkafa in 1904 about the opening of the Hotel Jerusalem. Members of the Benderli family were among the richest in Port Said and were part owners of the Simon Arzt department store. One family member was the president of the Italy-Egypt chamber of commerce in the city and bore the Italian title comandante.

In 1913, Shmuel Amdurski announced in the newspaper Haherut the opening of an import-export business and even provided a mailing address: P.O. Box 101 in Port Said.

Nowadays, the only Jews in Port Said are the hipsters at the "Port Said" bar and restaurant in Tel Aviv (pictured).
Avishag Shaar Yashuv

The following year in Haherut, Pinchas Weiss announced the opening of the Carmel Hotel in Port Said. The problem with these newspapers, which are scanned on the online archive of Jewish newspapers, is the spelling; different newspapers transliterated the name Port Said into Hebrew in a number of different ways.

Another way to research the question is to check the genealogy website JewishGen and see who is looking for ancestors from Port Said – and there are a few such people. One lives in Australia and is a descendant of the Arzt family. He has documents of a relative who was born in the city of Jaroslaw in Galicia. She completed midwife studies in Lvov and began practicing the profession in Port Said in 1882.

Wellspring of success in Israel

It turns out that Simon Arzt himself, who seems to have been one of the very first Jews in the city in 1870, brought a number of relatives to live there. He opened a store selling cigarettes that was later bought by Max Mouchly, Arzt’s nephew and the son of the founders of Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. Mouchly turned the small store into the famous department store, got rich and headed the Port Said Jewish community – he even became the honorary consul for Czechoslovakia and Romania in Port Said.

In the 1920s he employed his cousin and her husband Gedalyahu Neiman (Ne’eman) as managers of the department store. Neiman was the father of former Israeli minister and nuclear physicist Prof. Yuval Ne’eman. His sister – law professor and Israel Prize winner Ruth Ben-Israel – was born in Port Said.

Other famous Jews born in the city include the Israeli-American political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, whose grandfather headed the Ashkenazi community there. Yossi Ben-Aharon, the director of the Prime Minister’s Bureau under Yitzhak Shamir, grew up in Port Said, though he was born in Jerusalem, and was a member of the Adenite community.

The large synagogue in Port Said, Ohel Moshe, was built with a large donation from the Adenite philanthropist Menachem Messe (Musa) Banin, who is remembered as the “Rothschild of the East.” Later, the Sephardi synagogue Sukkat Shalom was built by Shmuel Mayo, who was born in Istanbul and opened a glass business in Port Said.

Apartment building in Port Said
Nir Kafri

There is little need to expand on the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a port city such as Port Said – only that some visitors were shocked that Jewish women worked in pubs, and even managed them. Expressions of this can be found in the written questions to the rabbinical authorities of the period.

During most of the century that Jews lived in Port Said, the community employed rabbis, including Rabbi Yitzhak Yadid Halevi, who served until his death in 1916, and Rabbi Nissim Benjamin Ohana, who served between 1918 and 1935. He made his fame as the rabbi of Gaza at the beginning of the 20th century; with the local imam he ran a fierce campaign against Christian missionaries in the city. He later became the chief rabbi of Haifa, serving there until his death in 1966.

After Ohana left, Rabbi Moshe Harari became rabbi in Port Said, and in the 1940s Rabbi Jacob Shababo took over; in the 1950s he became the rabbi of Singapore.

An old man serves tea outside a public park in Port Said
Nir Kafri

I found most of the last names of those who immigrated to Israel in 1956 in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. In many cases, the collecting and cataloging of names along a time line lets us understand the patterns of wandering and migration in a certain place and the origins of the Jews there.

We must recognize that behind the history, tradition and “big picture” lie the smaller pieces, the families and people. Research into genealogy is a multidisciplinary, multilevel effort that should not be left to elementary school students. Academia must wake up and recognize that this field isn’t a stepchild but rather a discipline in itself that requires the development of tools and independent capabilities.

Fortunately, in recent years an awakening has begun in the field, as well as in the political arena, and practical and budgetary steps are being taken to correct what has hitherto not received proper attention. We must hurry as long as there are still people among us who can provide such testimony.

I would like to thank Mr. Eli Mayo of Azur and Mr. Nissim Levy of Rishon Letzion, who left Port Said in 1956, and Dr. Albert Braunstein of Melbourne, Australia, who helped me greatly and shared precious information with me in the writing of this piece.